Judy Frater discusses Ajrakh tradition and the innovations made for the Connecting for India exhibition Rehnuma.
Judy Frater discusses Ajrakh tradition and the innovations made for the Connecting for India exhibition Rehnuma.
Akib Ibrahim Khatri teaches Ajrakh hand print and natural dye in a Craft Traditions course, Ajrakhpur 2015.
For craft to flourish, we must move from a subsidy mindset to a professional one, and consider consumers. Traditionally, artisans and clients were intimately connected and shared understanding and criteria for evaluation of craft aesthetics and quality. Today, there is often a social or cultural disconnect. Artisans are innovating for less known markets, and clients have little knowledge of craft. Mutual respect is the casualty. Artisans who once aimed to make the best, most long-lasting work now create the most flashy, easiest to produce, and cheapest work. Consumers expect cheap craft.
We educate artisans to know markets better. But, how to also educate consumers? Connoisseurship developed in the 18th century out of a desire to cultivate and promote knowledge of arts. Today the concept is found elitist, exclusive. Can we create a more inclusive version? I would like to engage makers, explore partnerships in which artisans generate a new connoisseurship based on their criteria. I want artisans to teach us to see craft as they see it, to reconnect artisans and consumers.
The average age of craft consumers has been 65 or so. Happily, a 2020 report from the Crafts Council of England shows younger, less educated, more cautious and cost-conscious buyers gaining interest in craft. They seek authenticity, experiences, ethical and sustainable consumption. Connoisseurship takes time. We need to invest in future consumers as we invest in future artisan designers.
To foster understanding and appreciation of craft traditions, I initiated 21-day Craft Traditions courses. In just 3 weeks, students gained significant understanding of cultural history and techniques. More important, their taste changed. They learned to love the distinguishing colors and patterns of traditional textiles.
We must continue to support relevant education for artisans. At the same time, we can engage young people, give them mutually respectful experiences- real or digital exchanges that sensitize them to making, mastery, discernment, design, and sustainability. We can expose them to differences in the work of individual makers. Meeting artisans and learning from them can alter a person’s vision and engender a love of craft.
The “3rd wave” of connoisseurship emphasizes the artisanal- valuing small, personal production. As intermediaries we must catch that wave and invest in creating craft connoisseurs.
In 2012, the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Convocation was sponsored by Tata Power, Adani group and the K.J.Somaiya Trust. Today, Tata and Adani have their own craft CSR projects. The K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust now operates the design education program as Somaiya Kala Vidya. What happened between 2012 and now?
I have outlined key issues of craft from the ground level perspective: the essence of craft is handmade; pervasive devaluing of hand work challenges maker communities; to sustain a living tradition, artisans must directly access better markets. My solution was design education for artisans, promoting independence. The challenge was that quality education costs more than artisans can afford. The program needed funding.
Because craft has been positioned as inferior manufacturing in need of intervention to survive it was an easy focus for CSR projects, and initially Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya received much needed CSR support.
But as CSR craft projects proliferated, corporates found it more beneficial to keep CSR projects inhouse than to support existing projects. They opted for quick fix intervention: “helping” connect artisans to markets, and set up new companies to market craft.
Today in Kutch, CSR projects vie for weavers and dyers to produce for their brands. The net result is regressive. Rarely are CSR products designed by the artisans who make them; even more rarely are artisans named. The power differential between artisans and companies is even greater than that between artisans and money lender master artisans. Artisans become daily wage workers like those in the industry that produced the excess capital that must be invested in CSR.
Independent artisan designers now compete with corporate brands to employ artisans to grow their enterprises, and to sell small-scale creation at prices competitive with production craft. The CSR message is size = power, and individual artisans are irrelevant.
Gandhi’s concept of companies responsible to the society from which they derive resources and income had merit. But As Annapurna pointed out, the concept of CSR has been manipulated to benefit companies rather than address inequalities of ownership.
Corporates inevitably think from an industrial/business perspective. Sustainability of hand craft traditions rests on understanding craft as cultural heritage, not merely livelihood. Preservation rests on value. Artisans don’t need help. They need veneration.
Photo Credit: Ketan Pomal, LM Studio, Bhuj
In the time of the plague in India, 1994, Kala Raksha exhibited a small collection in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, and also held a pop-up a few blocks away. A customer contacted me, angry. ‘You are cheating,’ she said. ‘The shawl in the Museum is triple the cost of the one in the pop-up.’ I explained to her that the Museum shawl was yarn dyed in natural dyes and had a lot of fine embroidery, while the pop-up shawl was piece dyed in synthetic dye and had less embroidery of lower quality. Then I added, “If you don’t know the difference, you should buy the cheaper one.”
By then I was already frustrated by customers not understanding craft. It has changed very little. People compare tourist embroidery peddled on Janpath with work lovingly stitched by traditional artisans, one-of-a-kind textiles designed and created by one artisan to production work cranked out by laborers in workshops, power loom to hand loom.
Excellent hand craft requires both effort and appreciation. Artisans create amazing work to compete for prestigious awards, but never make it for sale. It’s not worth it, they say.
Somaiya Kala Vidya conducted its first Outreach project with Ilkal sari weavers of Kamatgi, Bagalkot District of Karnataka. A key characteristic of Ilkal saris is the Kondi technique, in which cotton and silk yarns are painstakingly joined to ingeniously enable a weaver to create a sari with a cotton body and silk pallav (end). The join is a soft irregular blending. The sari is comfortable to wear, economical to produce, and looks fabulous. When the Kamatgi weavers refused to continue traditional kondi because it was too expensive, artisan designer mentor Puroshottambhai asked, “How expensive?” RS 50 more, they answered. “There’s your problem,” he rejoined. “With a RS 50 difference, people will bargain you; if it’s RS 1000, you will have the chance to explain.”
Exquisite hand craft is for people who care. How do we ensure the chance to explain? The customers who want to listen, who can consider scaling the walls of their own preconceptions? Perceived value is an art, not a science. It depends on the presentation of fine craft. And the artisan must be in the center, because the value of craft is the value of the individual -of human connection.
My advice to the customer in 1994 was clearly a bad approach. As advocates and sensitive intermediaries, our challenge is to explain craft so that customers know and value differences in hand work, and to do that, we must truly value hand craft ourselves.
Photo: The Kamatgi Ilkal and Bhujodi weaver designer mentors Puroshottambhai, far right back row and Niteshbhai, second from left back row, proudly show their 2017 sari collection, some of which- the golden pallav in front for example, use the traditional kondi technique.
Today’s craft is created for urban markets. In many regions of India, artisans don’t have direct access to those markets. They are beholden to “Master Artisans” for whom they do job work and who lend them money they won’t repay in their lifetimes, preventing them from leaving their workshops.
Enabling direct market access is a key focus of the design curriculum at SKV. In Market Orientation, the third module of the year-long course, artisan students explore market segments. Pictured, Amarbhai, a bandhani artisan student, and Shakilbhai, an Ajrakh print student and Kisanbhai, a weaver student study the presentation and pricing of hand-crafted products similar to those that they create, to gain an understanding of market segments and to conjecture about how their work can be valued. Students also visit homes in Ahmedabad to learn more about people who might purchase their work- contemporary end users. Through the year, they learn to make theme-based, market-oriented collections and work very hard to create unique new looks, which they launch in a show in Ahmedabad.
Yet, after the course when it’s time to go to an exhibition in Delhi, Mumbai, etc., the collection is left behind and “regular” work is brought. “This is what the market wants,” they say. The markets to which they have direct access are pop-up exhibitions and medium level businesses. This segment- like the original local clients- wants what it already knows.
For artisans, the urban market remains distant. In the local ecosystem men deemed even the little unknown of hereditary clients risky. Add the perceived practicalities of business and the push to scale up, and the risks pre-empt innovation.
Degrees of unknown can be managed by experience. As artisan designers gain experience and make the market more familiar, they can begin to utilize creativity to gain recognition as well as increased income.
But the process is slow. And we live in a fast world governed by marketing. Hard sell marketing leaves little space for exploration and can make us buy what we don’t really want before we realize it. Marketing can become a runaway train when it eclipses what is marketed. And marketers of craft often omit names and faces of artisans, reinforcing the idea of hands without heads –or curiosities needing help, like the example from the G20 bazaar.
So, the question is how to leverage creative capacity honestly to negotiate value in higher levels of the market?
Photos by LOkesh Ghai, who taught the course in 2020
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya women’s class, 2013.
Research underpins pedagogy. By the time I developed a curriculum for design for artisans through an Ashoka Fellowship in 2003, I had been researching artisans 3 decades, through college courses, books and field work, then working hands-on. The practical research was invaluable.
The foundation of a curriculum is a goal. Here we confront a basic dilemma: student engagement is critical, but students do not know what they don’t know. I set my goal as increasing income, social status, and independence- one the artisan community articulated.
Researching, I questioned further.
“Don’t teach us embroidery,” artisans answered. “That’s what we do. Teach us something useful.”
So I also observed and hypothesized. I refined the goal with research on historical relationships between artisans and their clients and changes in the craft ecosystem. To re-build lost connections, artisan students needed to know about current markets, and value.
I founded the structure and methodology of the course on the strengths, interests, and limitations I perceived in artisans- ready to adjust the experiment based on results. To ensure that learning took place I created an environment that was safe and nurturing. And to ensure that learning would continue after the course, I included analysis and discussion as part of every activity. Listening, mutual reasoning, respecting differences would help students grow as people. I rooted the course in respect for traditions. I wanted artisans to value what they already know.
There is no substitute for being on the ground. I researched throughout the courses. Education and research intertwine when everyone feels comfortable, and everyone is engaged in analysis and discussion. Teachers, students, staff, and I all learned together, and we adapted courses as we went.
Several years into the program, when graduates began to know what they knew and became successful, I engaged them to further refine goals and methods to what they deemed most relevant. And each year I invited the alumni to seminars on topics I thought needed discussion. I wanted to learn from them- more research!
Education- like craft- must be organic and living. Only when it is relevant is it effective.
Tausifbhai presents his work to family and professional juries during the “Merchandising, Presentation” module of the Somaiya Kala Vidya design course, 2019. Presentation includes an explanation of the collection theme, concept development, and specific innovations the student did, in order to illuminate the thought embedded in the work as well as technical innovations- and create value for the whole of the work: concept and creation.
I have spent the last week toiling over Folk Art Market (IFAM) applications. The applicants worked harder, creating beautiful new collections. My role is to enhance their work through presentation. Craft is presented in many ways. Fabindia proclaims that imperfections are inherent. Bandhej glosses over handmade to focus on appeal. Good Earth presents products as beautiful and hand crafted.
Yet, in all cases, while designers are celebrated, artisans remain nameless. “How can we promote them?” I am told. “No one knows their names.”
How to position craft holistically, as the concept and creation of an individual?
In India, artisans presenting their work in exhibitions is seen as an opportunity to bargain. Artisan Designer Khalidbhai Usman Khatri is so fed up that he stopped going to exhibitions.
IFAM, in Santa Fe, offers a different model, in which artists presenting their own work adds value. Yet, there is the lingering tone of: Buy this folk art to help /support the artisans and, increasingly, high value craft is difficult to sell. “How many collectors are there?” I am asked. I try to present Tausifbhai, who studied date palms and celebrated them in his handprints, in the IFAM electronic straitjacket, squeezing the soul of his work into the title. The rest is just material, size and price.
But at the Santa Fe Indian Market, Native American artists earn name recognition and respectable prices. And there seem to be plenty of collectors.
In 2016, when Hasambhai, a potter from Kutch, met Robert Tenorio in Kewa Pueblo, he was astounded at the prices his ceramics commanded. But, Robert laughed, he didn’t start there; he started at $5.
How can an artisan gain value? The final module of SKV’s year-long design course is “Merchandising, Presentation.” The rationale is that artisans can gain full value for their designs only if they present them effectively. Graduates have learned to use photography and the power of social media to bypass prejudice. “I can sell unique work online, and no one bargains for cheaper prices,” Khalidbhai says.
Artisans build their names– and in turn collectors, by consciously presenting collectible work.
The photo is of the first iteration of the interpretation center of the Kala Raksha Museum. The idea was to portray the traditional context of embroidery for visitors. I engaged artisans to create replicas of pieces in the collection, a prelude to learning to innovate on traditions. I also engaged the late Hariyaben Bhanani, suf embroidery artist, in creating the display to ensure authenticity. A photo of a wedding in her community adds context.
When we were dressing mannequins for the display, Hariyaben asked me what to put for the bride’s skirt?
“Traditional,” I said.
“Which tradition?” she asked.
A profound question. She understood living tradition.
As Santhosh Sakhinala has said, concepts inherent in creating traditional craft did not need to be distinguished. ‘Upcycling’ and ‘design’ were embedded in making. Similarly, innovation was essential to a living tradition. Artisans adapted their work organically, ensuring its relevance for the evolving lives of intimately known users, using known materials and processes. For male textile artisans of Kutch, who created as livelihood exchange, innovation played a relatively minor role. The textiles that they traditionally made were identity markers; clients did not want to differ significantly from community members. For women who traditionally embroidered for themselves, creative innovation was an intrinsic value. They strived to innovate while retaining an essential identity that they as a community defined.
When craft is one’s life, innovation is play, the joy in creating. Tagore, in his critique ‘The Cult of the Charkha,’ emphasized that it is the minds of individuals that prevent them from becoming bullocks going round a narrow range of habit; thus man has looked down on mechanically repetitive work.
Innovation distinguishes hand craft from industry. It is also a key means of maintaining relevance. Variation is driven by the consumer; thus artisans must directly access markets.
Tradition and innovation are relative and perhaps irrelevant terms, as Hariyaben wisely implied. When today we name and segregate these terms, it creates occasions for judgement and raises an uneasy question: Who gets to arbitrate?
As Sarah Sockbeson, a Penobscot artist from Maine said, “It should be up to the artist to determine our art. It’s up to the market to support it.”
The late Hariyaben Bhanani explains the toys she designed and created to an American student. Hariyaben couldn’t bear to see scraps of painstakingly embroidered fabric thrown away, so she rescued them, took them home, and painstakingly patched them together to form elephants, camels and dolls that she stuffed with other fabric remnants. She lived the spirit of sustainability.
In her novel Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver brilliantly illuminates the climate crisis through a discussion between her Appalachian protagonist and an environmental activist. ‘Bring your own containers to restaurants for leftovers,’ the activist says, ‘and minimize air travel.’ Dellarobia hasn’t eaten in a restaurant for 2 years and has never been on a plane. Nor does she drink bottled water, or have disposable income to invest in social responsibility.
The 99% have contributed minimally to the environmental crisis. Artisans of Kutch in fact live astonishingly eco-friendly lives. Designers of au courant sustainable fashion who come to Kutch villages seeking textile waste to up-cycle are routinely turned away empty handed. Original scale traditional textiles of Kutch were rooted in sustainability. Weavers used any residual yarn in finishing, or in the next textile. Ajrakh and batik printers recycled resist substances, and exhausted natural dyes. Village women stitched garments with no-waste patterns. None of these textiles used fossil fuel energy. Scaled up production today trades some of these principles for speed and income. Still, environmentally sound grounding is a good reason to use hand crafted products.
But even more valuable in becoming environmentally responsible is understanding the ethos of hand craft. If we slow down to hand craft speed, we can observe why artisans work as they do. Vasant Rao meticulously collects the gold dust from a gold pendant he filed to perfection. Shakilbhai salvages the wax from today’s batik to use tomorrow. Hariyaben collects the textile cuttings from the tailoring room and fashions delightful animal toys. In the local craft ecosystem described earlier, value was the basis of traditional design and creation. Artisans did not waste because they valued materials, their own skills and efforts, and their consumers.
The most basic tenet of conservation is that you preserve what you value. We can learn more than craft skills from traditional artisans. Can we engage them as teachers in early education and invite them to share world views as well as technology?
August 12, 2023
Distributing payments in Sumrasar Jatwali, 2001.
After working with Kala Raksha, the trust I co-founded in 1993, I became acutely aware of the limitations of development for artisans in the NGO sector.
As Dr. Ismailbhai Khatri said (last post), the government should provide basic amenities to all. He was not asking for anything specific to artisans. But what should private entities provide? A plethora of NGOs have emerged to offer assistance to artisans beyond the scope of government.
Intermediaries fill a need. Arjo Klamer imagines an ideal Creative Craft Culture, in which there are 3 components: creative artisans, an appreciative market, and intermediaries to connect the two.
The issue is how do private intermediaries understand the need and attempt to fill it? When artisans are imagined as pre-industrial manufacturers, the goal is understood as making hand work fit into an industrial model: artisans need to scale up to make in quantity and make cheaply. Further, many NGOs need their artisan constituency in order to endure. So there is a vested interest in keeping artisans dependent, “helping” in order to maintain a status quo.
From the artisan perspective, a more respectful model could be developed on the concept of partnership, in which parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests and there is some mutuality of rights and obligations. Could artisans and intermediaries join their respective strengths and abilities to form balanced partnerships?
Another intriguing model is Gandhi’s specific concept of trusteeship as a way to address inequalities of ownership and income. Gandhi believed that
everything belongs to God and is for His people. No one could accumulate wealth without the labour and cooperation of poorer sections of society. So when an individual had more than their fair share, they became a trustee of that portion, and were logically and morally bound to share it. Gandhi’s goal was progress that promotes human dignity, rather than mere charity. Today’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is rooted in this concept of trusteeship; the concept is that companies have a responsibility to the society from which they derive resources.
As always, the question is, how to authentically interpret and implement this ideal?